It’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive, they say. What a long, strange and ultimately sad trip this one was. August 1, 1942 to August 9, 1995. Jerome John Garcia was both the heart and soul of the Grateful Dead?though he would have demurred, since he was an ambivalent anarchist.
Nicknamed Captain Trips by Dead Heads, Garcia’s solo work was characterised by a structured sense of song. Bluegrass, folk, jug, country, blues, rock’n’roll and pop were a stepping stone in the mother band to his five solo albums. As on those he made with Howard Wales, the New Riders Of The Purple Sage, David Grisman and Merl Saunders, he embraced more linear qualities when left to his own devices.
Garcia (1972) was recorded on a high as guitarist and drummer Bill Kreutzmann combined American Beauty precision with electronic wizardry, transforming “Spidergawd” into the blood-rush of “The Wheel”. An album’s worth of extra tracks, a formula repeated throughout, includes bare-bones pedal-steel, reminding one of the string mastery at Garcia’s disposal. Compliments Of (1974), his second album, was chalk to cheese. Collaborator John Kahn added LA session lustre with players like Larry Carlton, Presley drummer Ron Tutt, big horn noise and soul-girl backing vocals. Garcia’s weirdly passionate voice was fully suited to Van Morrison’s “He Ain’t Give You None” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game”.
Dead fans will find 1976’s Reflections a mine of memory. The Garcia-Robert Hunter axis was never better than on the misery-soaked “Comes A Time” while Holy Grail seekers will zoom in on the unreleased “Orpheus”, noting the way this disc gives the lie to the heresy that the Dead didn’t do studios, as it completes a link between From The Mars Hotel and the epic fusion of Blues For Allah.
Cats Under The Stars (1978) and the heroin-damaged Run For The Roses (1982) indicate Garcia struggling with his demons, finding solace in Blood On The Tracks as he tangled himself in blues and fateful twists, ignoring warnings of that knock on heaven’s door. Even so, an extra disc of jams and alternatives emphasises his sublime guitar playing?after all, Garcia is a genius to rank alongside Coltrane and Davis?and his wracked, emotive vocal rasp.
On the night Jezza died, Bob Weir, playing Hampton Beach, gave the performance of his life as he sang “Papa’s gone, we’re left on our own”. All good things must come to an end. We won’t see Jerry Garcia’s like again.